~ Luke 17:5-10/Habakkuk 2:1-4 ~
So the disciples say to Jesus, “Increase our faith!” Seems like a completely legitimate thing to ask. Doesn’t every sincere Christian want to have more faith? And God knows we never have enough faith. These disciples, particularly, might have felt their faith was lacking because Jesus had just told them they should forgive people who have wronged them 70 times 7. That must require a lot of faith.
Of course, the assumption goes, Christians should always seek to increase faith, because certainly we all have an insufficient amount. We lack faith, so we should ask for more. Right? After all, the idea of living by faith, as our Old Testament reading purports which was then used up by the Apostle Paul and then became a theme of the Reformation, that “the righteous live by their faith” is central to our…faith. Having faith is a big thing. And certainly having more faith must be a laudable goal, right?
Furthermore, it does seem that some people have more faith than others – faith that allows them to do way more for God than we, who have little faith, can imagine doing. We have heard and read about great heroes of the faith, both ancient and contemporary, who seem to have great amounts of faith. And maybe we respond: That seems like a lot of work. So we remain in our seemingly mediocre faith.
But only very rarely, when this question is in play, do I hear a serious consideration of Jesus’ answer to the disciples. The reason is his answer just doesn’t make sense. Somehow faith the size of a mustard seed is enough faith. Somehow that is enough faith to accomplish amazing things, like throwing a mulberry tree into the ocean (Sometimes I wonder where Jesus gets these comparisons!). Just how much faith is that, Jesus? And people have been guessing ever since.
So people believe that the question “Increase my faith” is a legitimate question. It’s right there in the Bible so it must be a valid pursuit. But I’m not so sure. I think Jesus’ response to their question indicates they have asked the wrong question. Indeed, I believe Jesus mocks their question. Jesus is saying that following him is not about having more faith. It is just about following him. You either do or you don’t; no increased amount of faith will help you do that more or better. So Jesus says to them that just the tiniest amount of faith is enough. No, I’ll go even further. Faith isn’t the issue at all, especially in the way they (and we) think about it. The disciples ask for more faith; Jesus tells them that if they had even less than they have now they could do great things.
You see, they (and us) were thinking performance: better, more, increased. Being Christian somehow means moving up the spiritual ladder to higher and higher glories. Again, the disciples’ question is based on the desire to be a more impressive Christian, if not to God then to at least those around who can see us. But, ultimately, it is about seeking to impress God with our piety; with our faith.
God will have nothing to do with that. God is already as impressed as God can get with us. And God isn’t too impressed. That’s why God operates on the basis of grace. There is nothing we can do to impress more and so God just applies a liberal dosage of grace to everyone and that takes care of it.
Just to make sure the disciples don’t turn faith into a work, he gives them a mental exercise. Suppose, he says, one of you has a servant who comes in from twelve hours hard labor in the field. What do you say to him? “Have a seat and let me get you some supper” (An aside here: that would be a really nice thing for a boss to do, but that doesn’t fit Jesus’ story). No, says Jesus, you don’t! You say, get rattling those pots and pans and serve me some supper; then you can eat. And do you thank him when he does it? No, you don’t. It’s his job.
Its as if Jesus says, “Remember that the next time you want some kind of super faith. You’ve got only one job to do and that’s to accept my grace for you.” One way to put it: Stop striving so hard. Just accept my grace. Everything else that needs doing, I do. And I’m not going to thank you for what you do, or reward you for what you achieve, because no matter how impressive it all may be, it’s all useless for my purposes. It’s all tainted, even your faith, and especially your desire to impress me with your pious faith. Instead, I’m just going to come to you in your lostness and raise you up with life. And that’s the end of it.
Ah, but that’s not the end of it. Today is World Communion Sunday with its emphasis on worldwide unity and peace. Today is about peacemaking. Dona Nobis Pacem. “Give us peace.” And since non-unity and non-peace are so enormously overwhelming us, how can we possibly accomplish anything remotely akin to unity and peace in this world? Certainly, it would seem, great amounts of faith are required to accomplish even the smallest amount of unity or peace. But, again, I would caution against thinking in terms of size or volume of faith. Maybe, just maybe, God would have us go about this unity and peacemaking stuff at a smaller level; at, let’s say, a ‘mustard seed’ level.
Back in the early eighties when I was in my radical Christian mode, a book was going around entitled The Mustard Seed Conspiracy by Christian futurist Tom Sine. Sine echoes some of the themes of Jesus’ teaching about God’s attention to the lost, the little, the unclean, the insignificant. He says Jesus let us in on an astonishing secret. “God has chosen to change the world through the lowly, the unassuming, and the imperceptible…That has always been God’s strategy—changing the world through the conspiracy of the insignificant.” I agree. God seems to want to change the world not with a bunch of winners but with losers. In other words God wants to work through the likes of you and me.
So how can we be instruments of peace? Well, we don’t need more faith. We just have to be like those servants in Jesus’ parable and do our job. We indeed can do God’s work of peace by being people of peace. We can learn peace by letting go of the violence that resides within us. We can learn peace by accepting God’s unconditional grace. That means letting go of our pasts, no matter how broken, or violent, or disturbing, or mediocre, or insignificant they may have been – it means letting go of our past by the act of forgiveness for ourselves and for those with whom we still hold deep seated resentment. We can learn peace by not acting towards others on the basis of power with it’s implied underpinning of violence. We can learn peace by being advocates for peace in our own, private worlds. We can decide to act towards others with respect and dignity. We can advocate for those in our own worlds – at work, in our families, wherever – who are the victims of violence. We can be people who learn to listen to others, especially with those who have little voices and are not used to being heard. We can learn peace – each of us individually – and practice it. In doing that we are doing God’s conspiratorial mustard seed work in the world.
We don’t need more faith to do the work of peace. Maybe we need more will and determination, but we don’t need more faith. We already have all we need in Christ’s acceptance of us by that incredible stuff called grace. May we learn to be convinced of that grace for us. And out of that grace, based on that grace, deeply embedded in that grace, may we do God’s justice in a world that sorely lacks it. By God’s grace be an instrument of peace. Amen.